Under Paul Rhoads’ staff, Iowa State built a nice pipeline of Big 12 linebackers that included four first-team All-Big 12 selections in Jesse Smith, A.J. Klein, Jake Knott, and Jeremiah George. Since George’s departure, the linebacker unit has been a defensive liability for the Cyclones. Some of the group’s shortcomings can be attributed to lousy defensive line play, but too often the past three seasons, the Iowa State linebackers have taken poor angles, relied on arm tackling, mistimed blitzes, failed to shed blocks, and lacked the overall playmaking ability that made Wally Burnham’s defenses effective. Will it really take a former quarterback to get the unit back on track?
Iowa State has struggled to recruit or retain linebackers since 2013 as a host of Cyclones have either left the program, ended their careers prematurely due to injury, changed positions, or failed to live up to the standards of their predecessors. While Matt Campbell has brought in three linebackers in his two most recent recruiting classes, his roster is still thin on talent and experience.
The top returning linebacker is Willie Harvey, who tied for the team lead in tackles in 2016 with 78, including 3.5 sacks. Harvey is moving to the “field” outside linebacker position as linebackers coach Tyson Veidt referred to it. Harvey was the “boundary” outside linebacker last season, where he was one of the Cyclones top playmakers. Harvey has the most experience of all the linebackers and will be counted on to be more consistent than a year ago.
While I hinted at it above, some of you are probably wondering why it’s taken me until the fourth paragraph to mention one of the most intriguing storylines in all of college football. Well, it’s because I have no idea what to expect from quarterback-turned-linebacker, Joel Lanning. As you’ve probably heard, last year’s starting quarterback is making the rare transition to linebacker, one of the most physically demanding positions on the field. We know Lanning is a powerful athlete that’s mentally capable of picking up a new playbook. But can we realistically expect him to become a Big 12 linebacker when he hasn’t played the position since middle school? My skepticism remains high, but I’m excited to watch him try.
Veidt mentioned in fall camp that they’ve been working more with a 4-3-4 base defense as opposed to the 4-2-5 that was used primarily last season. That could be because sophomore Marcel Spears has emerged as one of the best 11 guys on that side of the ball. Spears showed a good nose for the football on special teams last season and vaulted to the top of the depth chart after a spring performance that spurred Campbell to refer to him as “one of the shining stars of our program.” If Spears can provide a physical presence at the line of scrimmage while also holding his own in coverage, Iowa State could get a much-needed boost of athleticism at a position where they’ve struggled.
It seems the coaches are comfortable with their top three in Harvey, Lanning, and Spears, but a battle remains for backup duty. Veidt specifically mentioned the battle to back-up Lanning at middle linebacker between redshirt freshman Tymar Sutton and redshirt sophomore Bobby McMillen.
Sutton was a highly sought-after linebacker out of Pennsylvania that had offers from West Virginia and Wisconsin before committing to the Cyclones. Sutton was a candidate to play last season as a true freshman before breaking his hand in fall camp, so we know the coaching staff likes his ability. McMillen comes with less fanfare, but Veidt says he’s right there with Sutton, and both will be expected to be big contributors on special teams.
The pre-camp depth chart listed redshirt junior Reggan Northrup as the No. 2 linebacker behind Spears. Northrup brings experience to the depth chart after tallying 50 tackles last season, including 3.5 tackles for loss. The 208-pound junior has shown flashes of Big 12 athleticism on the outside, but has struggled to put on the weight necessary to be an every-down player.
Another surprise in the pre-camp depth chart was Mackenro Alexander as the backup to Harvey. Alexander, a transfer from Auburn, saw little action in his first year in the Iowa State program, and his listed weight of 192 is grossly undersized for a Big 12 linebacker. Either Alexander has put on some weight, or this is the most glaring result of a depth issue.
Two Iowa preps were brought in to make an impact sooner rather than later. O’Rien Vance from Cedar Rapids Washington and Jake Hummel of Dowling Catholic were early commits in Campbell’s 2017 class and come with the size expected of a Power 5 linebacker. Vance, who many consider to be one of the hidden gems of the class, could make a push for early playing time, but I have to think the staff would prefer to redshirt both players.
How They Stack Up vs. The Big 12
Linebacker still appears to be a weakness for the Cyclones when compared to the rest of the Big 12. TCU returns two all-conference linebackers, including first-team selection Travin Howard. Texas’ Malik Jefferson brings plenty of hype, and Oklahoma’s roster is always filled with top-end talent, led this year by Caleb Kelly.
It’s a bit of a mess after that as most teams are replacing multiple starters and sorting things out in fall camp. It’s hard to rank the Cyclones unit anything higher than 6th given its recent performances, but linebacker doesn’t appear to be a unit of strength in the Big 12.
Outside of Willie Harvey, it’s difficult to know what to expect here from Iowa State. The good news is the talent shouldn’t be any worse than the past three seasons. Harvey became a more consistent force later in the season and should be able to build on that. Spears’ spring performance and the switch to more 4-3 are good signs that he’s ready to take the next step.
But most of this group’s potential rests on the shoulders of Lanning. He has good size and speed for the position, but so much of the position relies on instincts. If his physical style at quarterback translates to the other side of the ball, the Cyclones could see an uptick in the explosive plays that have been missing since George graduated in 2013. If he’s overmatched physically, or more likely in my opinion, lacks the know-how that comes with years of reps, we could see Sutton take over at some point. Either way, the linebackers are a huge question mark, but should be one of the most interesting storylines to unfold in 2017.